Perhaps it’s because I work at a high school, but bullying isn’t far from my mind and I found it particularly prevalent today.
I had no interest in Pretty Little Liars. Since Netflix has not updated the seasons to my favorite shows, all of which I’ve watched numerous times to the point of reciting each line from every episode by memory, I felt adventurous. At the same time, I was reading a Salon.com article concerning a bullied gay teen who committed suicide in Oregon.
In the Pilot episode of Pretty Little Liars, a stylishly troubled teen named Hanna lives in a posh home with her recently single mother. She does something exceedingly stupid by shoplifting at a local mall and is arrested for it. After mom bails her out of jail, the mom turns to Hanna and says, “Why would you shoplift? I give you everything to keep you popular!” (Roughly paraphrasing from memory.)
Around this time, I was reading the aforementioned article where Jaiden Bell joined cheerleading to make his dreams come true and gain social acceptance. Not that Jaiden felt that joining cheerleading would gain him social acceptance. He was incredibly passionate about cheerleading. Jaiden felt he would somehow gain some social acceptance as a result of his passion. It was a reasonable deduction. In many towns, cheerleaders are still the pinnacle of high school royalty.
Unfortunately for Jaiden, his sexual orientation superseded his success at cheerleading. He underestimated small town mentality and their notion of football symbolizing the summit of masculinity.
Hanna’s mom and the mentality of Jaiden’s small hometown reminded me how society protects – in some cases celebrates – the bullies and repeatedly victimizes people who are different. When Hanna’s mom reminded her klepto daughter of her social wealth as a result of her material wealth, she was effectively saying that the mom turned Hanna into a packaged replica of society’s typical high school girl. This was to keep Hanna from feeling the need to shoplift for social acceptance and to keep the family’s good name. Otherwise, Hanna and her mother might be ostracized from high school and town society. Ostracism, in social terms, is a euphemism for bullying.
My Master Thesis concerned independent others in American minorities. I analyzed the treatment of people who were different from the American minority group of which they belong in American literature. The thesis demonized notions of community because of their penchant for ostracizing those who are different.
A professor in my thesis committee asked if I was being too harsh on community, if I couldn’t spare one kind sentence. I came up with some lame line about the fear of writing a tangent.
What I thought was something completely different. The professor that asked me to spare a kind word for community didn’t go through the type of hell I lived through. At the hands of community, I was bullied.
I didn’t grow up in the ideal American family. My parents divorced because my dad was a less than ideal man. He was good at pretending yet, in reality, was highly lacking.
Raised by a single parent came with a social stigma I never understood. I tried to make friends, but had a difficult time. There were unspoken rules of fashion, accessories, and behavior that I didn’t learn. The girls in grade school strove to be the perfect Barbie doll with all the trappings. Since mom didn’t have the money for frivolities, in the eyes of those girls, I was lacking. To compound the problem, I didn’t know how to act. I didn’t know someone should not act as they are or say what they’re really thinking. Everything seemed like a highly problematic song and dance that was too complicated for me.
I was lucky in Catholic grade school. The boys and girls mostly ignored me unless they caught me looking at the jumpers on the second-hand wrack in the hallway.
It was worse in middle school. In the middle of 7th grade, mom and I moved. I went to public school and suddenly, I wasn’t ignored.
The first two weeks were wonderful. I believed I made friends with the popular kids, sat at their table, and conversed with them. One day, a very disturbed girl with sexual identity issues, stood on top of a table, pointed at me, and screamed that I was a lesbian in the middle of a packed lunchroom. The lunchroom monitors did nothing, the teachers did nothing. That was the beginning of absolute hell.
I was completely visible to the public. In Catholic school, I thought being ignored was bad, but this was worse. Labeled as a lesbian when I went to junior high was as bad as leprosy in the middle ages and committing murder at the same time. Everyone stayed away from me and they scrutinized me under an unrelenting social microscope.
The kids made fun of my family situation and my clothes. I wasn’t used to dressing in casual wear for school everyday hence I had no clue what clothes were socially acceptable and most of my clothes were men’s wear. Men’s wear fit my frame better and were more comfortable than women’s wear. I didn’t know that a girl wearing men’s clothes was a social taboo. The more uncomfortable you were, the more fashionable.
There was more than pointing and laughing.
Ironically, English class was the worst. There was a girl that made sure to sit one seat behind me. She made sure that seat between us was empty, which was easy since no one wanted to sit behind me. During class, she would prop the desk on the top part of my chair and proceed to shove the desk into the middle of my back. I would have to stay that way, uncomfortable and sometimes in pain, for the entire class. The teacher did nothing.
I didn’t want to tell my mom what was going on. She had her own demons to battle, and I thought I had to battle mine on my own. It wasn’t until I was caught plagiarizing my mom’s name on a report card that the school finally stepped in to help. They placed me with a counselor I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, but was better than nothing.
My situation didn’t get better until I entered high school. The high school began a program where they brought in a social counselor, and no one seemed to care or remember me from that hellish middle school.
Though I was no longer bullied, the mental damage those kids unleashed would take years to fix. In some ways, I’m still working on it.
A few times I thought about suicide. It’s easy to fall into that train of thought while tortured on a daily basis and told repeatedly in varied ways how worthless you are.
That’s what society does to different people. First, community isolates those who are different. They make sure that the different person has no one in their corner, or they don’t know how to ask for help. Second, community wears down its victim. It’s easy for the strongest person to cave under a daily wave of mental and physical abuse. Last, after wearing away their victim’s defenses, community puts on a hollow show of sadness and sympathy when their victim finally commits suicide.
I’ve heard all the arguments while reading articles about kids who weren’t as fortunate as I. Community idiots point the finger everywhere but themselves. They blame the family situation, the victim’s low self-esteem, the victim’s weakness, etc. What they don’t say is, We could have done something.
There are even those idiots that make arguments for bullying. I’ve had people tell me that I wouldn’t be the person I am today without it. That bullying instills strength. Perhaps they’re right, but we don’t know that for sure. The personalities of people are molded by a combination of genetics and environment. Half of my DNA was procured by incredibly strong people and I was raised by those incredibly strong people. I would have been the same without bullying.